Monday, April 20, 2009

This Terrifying Novel: 2666

More than a month ago I began reading Roberto Bolaño's 2666, I suppose on a lark. In fact, my bookclub (perhaps presently defunct) selected it, after reading Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen (which I strongly recommend, particularly for one quotation: "Peculiarity is fact rumpling the bedsheets of assumption"). Around the same time I bought The Savage Detectives on my friend Jeff's suggestion. I recall him extoling the intensity of the novel and his surprise that through some 400 pages it could be maintained. I read the first 200 pages of that and then put it down, although not because of disinterest, but because I wanted to stick with one book at a time (a habit I have not cultivated well). The Savage Detectives is a beautiful record of a poet of perhaps middling talent and then an search for an infamous poetess bearing the appropriate first name Caesurea (what luck!). This vision of the literary world eclipses all televisual representations, which make authors into pompous, necessarily (because of the medium) empty talking heads.

After whatever had been keeping me from continuing with 2666 disappeared, I have been reading it fervently. It is a terrifying novel, whose center lies around the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez. It comprises the longest part of the book, although it does not begin until 353 pages into the text (practically 900 pages long). In fact, the first part leads one to think that this book is like others, about the world of literature, although seen from the perspective of a several European critics of the apocryphal, mysterious German writer Archimboldi. Only in the closing of the first section, more than 200 pages long, do we finally find ourselves in Santa Theresa (Ciudad Juárez). It is unmistakeably hell. The second part involves a Spanish philosopher professor with the bad luck to be teaching in Santa Theresa. The third part follows a black New York journalist named Oscar Fate (nom de plume, albeit) as he serendipitiously discovers Santa Theresa, ostensibly covering a uneventful boxing match. The fourth part is about the murders.

Bolaño here writes fragments of a consistent narrative that jump back and forth between different narrators or characters, without transition. It is not hard to follow and seems appropriate particularly in the fourth section, as the fragments jump from the account of the discovered bodies of one woman and then another. This kind of catalogue is ... I can't find the appropriate word for it. Terrifying, I suppose. Bolaño makes no attempt to bring these women back to life beyond to present their circumstances prior to their disappearance and subsequent (although sometimes separated by weeks) discovery, and I think this is a gesture of remarkable tact, given the temptations. He doesn't need to. I don't know what possesses one to read this part of the book, exactly. Bolaño is no fabulous writer, at least in translation. Which is not to say that his prose is lackluster. But the text compels you to continue reading, as you develop attachments to characters, seeing their shortcomings and intimations very clearly before even they are apprised of them. In the fourth section there are a few characters, most men peopling the police force. I have only reached 1995 or so, so the willful, incomprehensible incompetence of the police has yet to appear. Yet the investigations following the discoveries of bodies are so brief, it is clear that something is wrong. The facts, to which Bolaño is obliquely attached, indicate criminal neglect on the part of the Mexican authorities, at various levels.

The sheer volume of murders and the similarities of some leads one to conclude, as different journalists have, that serial murderers are at work. This is not to suggest, however, that only those murders indicating a pattern are included in 2666. In fact, the victims include many women killed by those closest to them, of which there is no doubt about the person responsible. Yet through the unfolding of this list a very different event begins to take focus, the kind which only large periods of time and vast areas of space can reveal. Namely, that those responsible for these murders are not just the men (and women) who have, through their individual action, taken the lives of their victims. Instead, everyone becomes a partner to the murders through the spectacle. There are two dangers to this realization: first, that the murders become inevitable, a cultural crime, and the possibility of ending them outstrips the efforts of collective action; second, that we fail to recognize the diverse forces leading to this event (NAFTA and the maquiladoras, a patriarchal culture where wife beating had been legal until 2002, the non-observance of the human rights of women).

To put this differently, there may be serial murderers as well as economically ravaged families ... but the crime of murder has been displaced by the crime of neglect, disinterest.


DOCTOR J said...

This is a really nice write-up, Chet. Now I have even more reason to try to read 2666.

If I'm being totally honest, the length has really intimidated me, and is probably the main reason I haven't picked it up yet. (That's also what kept me away from Infinite Jest for so long!) But the more reviews I read (including this one) the more it seems like 2666 is more like several novels in one, which seems more manageable.

I really didn't know anything about Ciudad Juarez until people started talking about 2666. Neglect, indeed.

petya said...

I didn't finish reading your write-up last week because I thought you were going to give things away. hehe

I am in complete agreement with all your observations. I want to finish reading the third book before I say whatever little extra I have to say about it.

Thank you for giving us the book!!!

petya said...

Did you finish reading it?
I wrote a non-review on my blog. Tell me what you think.